Jaco Pastorius: Modern American Music… Period! The Criteria Sessions

Let’s just skip past the bit in which I apologize for not writing much. I’m so terrible at this that I had to reset my password.

Prologue: I’ve had a new manager for the last three months, as part of a job swap between different institutions. Friday was his last day, and he gave the members of my group parting gifts. He was a former jazz geek like myself, and we’d spent some time talking about jazz and jazzy things in our weekly meetings; this informed his decision to purchase for me an album that I didn’t even know existed, Jaco Pastorius’ “Modern American Music… Period! The Criteria Sessions.

It’s the demo recordings of a young (23!) Jaco Pastorius, unseen and unheard, only one copy in existence, until it’s mass production in 2014. They did what they could to remaster it for mass production; there’s tape hiss, fade ins, etc… it’s a demo, after all. And it is marvelous.

I could go on about the music; demo recordings and trial runs of songs that would appear on future Jaco Pastorius and Weather Report releases, the odd instrumentation (TWO steel drum player!?), the absolute wall of sixteenth notes that still create a structure and groove that you can build a house on. I won’t, though. This is an amazing album, very worth listening to, and I recommend it. For someone unfamiliar with Jaco’s work, I’d first recommend his debut release and his work with Joni Mitchell and Pat Metheny as starting points, followed by this album as a “SEE!? SEE WHERE THAT CAME FROM!” reference.

What I will discuss, though, is that this is the first time in probably 15 years that I’ve really sat and listened to Jaco. Which seems strange, considering that he is hands down the biggest influence on my bass playing. Yes, my main influences in my early years were absolutely Les Claypool, Cliff Burton, Brent Alwin from the Style Monkeez, and Billy Gould from Faith No More. These were bassists I could aspire to, mimic, and absorb. With enough time spent in my room, I could play their bass lines, and learn from them. When I first heard Jaco in 1996, it was like putting on the sunglasses.* It was a sobering moment. Not only could I not physically play his music, I didn’t understand the theory behind it. I think of music mathematically;** melody is the solution to a harmonic problem, and bass lines are really alternate reality melodies. At least, that’s how I understand it now. ANYWAY, Jaco’s basslines alone were tremendously complex both harmonically and rhythmically, and yet somehow perfectly created a perfect groove. Looking at the transcriptions of his bass lines, you’d think that he was grossly overplaying, yet when listening to the music, this belt fed machine gun of notes creates a steady foundation for the rest of the band. I would spend hours working on one. single. measure. Trying to understand the “why” of the notes and rhythms. Trying to build up the physical dexterity and endurance to play through THIS. There was a period of my college years (two years to be precise) when I almost exclusively listened to Jaco, spending hour after hour in the practice room trying to “get it”. This was a time in my life when music was breaking me; I’d practice until midnight, then shut off the lights in my practice room and wait for security to sweep through the music building, then turn the lights back on and practice for a few more hours. I’d leave HFA disgusted with myself for not being able to play fast enough, or not being able to keep up a frenetic sixteenth note pace through solo changes. I’d spend another hour walking circles around campus, fingers still twitching, spirals of notes spinning around in my brain. And then one day, I watched an instructional video by bassist Michael Manring (a former student of Jaco), in which he talked about his frustrations in trying to sound like Jaco, how he would stay up late at night practicing and he kept making mistakes, and then he realized that those mistakes were his musical voice coming through. It was sobering, and slightly terrifying. That’s when I stopped trying to get into Jaco’s head, focused more on just playing music, and started enjoying playing bass again. When I taught bass lessons, I’d recommend certain Jaco tunes or use his lines as instructional material, but since then I haven’t even really listened to Jaco’s work.

It’s refreshing to listen to his early work with “fresh ears”. You can absolutely hear bass lines and ideas that he would use for the rest of his life (and since he died at 35, a very short life). It’s also interesting to listen to this after I’ve spent so many years listening to very technical metal music. His bass playing seems much more “alive” than I remember it being, and I think that’s simply due to the fact that the recordings are raw, unprocessed, straight to analog. No overdubs, no studio magic. Just pure, raw, recorded talent.

*Except instead of seeing dystopian messages and aliens, I saw my own crippling musical inadequacy.
**Which is hilarious because I’m notoriously awful at math.

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